Nearly 2.4 million Americans -- 1 percent of the adult population -- were living with hepatitis C from 2013 through 2016, according to new CDC estimates published today in the journal Hepatology.
Medications that cure hepatitis C offer the hope of eliminating the disease in the U.S., yet, today's report suggests that millions are infected and have not benefited from these new treatment options. Expanded testing, treatment, and prevention services are urgently needed, especially in light of the surge in new infections linked to the opioid crisis.
"Every American who has been cured of hepatitis C is living proof that ending this epidemic is possible," said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. "Hundreds of thousands of Americans have already been cured. In order to achieve our goal, we must commit to ensuring that everyone living with hepatitis C is tested and treated."
To estimate total hepatitis C prevalence in the United States, researchers analyzed blood test results from the nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2013 through 2016. They also analyzed data from other studies of groups not surveyed in the NHANES, including active duty members of the military, and people who are incarcerated or homeless.
Opioid Crisis Puts New Generations at Risk of Hepatitis C Infections
Adding to the burden of those already living with hepatitis C, separate CDC surveillance data indicate that the number of new infections each year in the United States is disturbingly high and on the rise. Acute hepatitis C cases reported to CDC more than tripled from 2010 to 2016, with most new hepatitis C infections due to increased injection drug use associated with the nation's opioid crisis. Based on these data, CDC estimates that more than 41,000 Americans were newly infected with hepatitis C in 2016 alone.
"Seeing an undiagnosable infection become a curable disease has been a public health highlight of the past 30 years. But the shadow of the opioid crisis puts our nation's progress at risk," said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. "Tackling hepatitis C requires diagnosing and curing people living with the virus and cutting off new infections at the source."
Hepatitis C Affects Nearly Every Generation
Hepatitis C now poses a serious health threat to three generations of Americans, all of whom need to be reached with prevention services, testing, and treatment:
- Baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1965) account for a large portion of all chronic hepatitis C infections in the United States and currently have the highest rate of hepatitis C-related deaths. CDC recommends that all adults born between 1945 and 1965 get a one-time test for hepatitis C, but only a small fraction have done so.
- Adults under 40 have the highest rate of new infections, largely because of the opioid crisis.
- Infants born to mothers with hepatitis C are a growing concern. The overall risk of an HCV-infected mother transmitting infection to her infant is approximately 4 percent to 7 percent per pregnancy. From 2011 through 2014, national laboratory data indicate that the rate of infants born to women living with hepatitis C increased by 68 percent.
Eliminating Hepatitis C Requires Substantial National Commitment
Even though new treatments can cure hepatitis C virus infections in as little as two to three months, far too many Americans have not been effectively treated. They may be unaware of their infection or they are unable to access medication because they lack healthcare coverage or have financial restrictions.
In addition to expanding testing and removing barriers to treatment, authors of the new report stress that intensified programs to prevent, track, and respond to new hepatitis C infections are also essential to reducing the number of infections. Prevention efforts to address new infections include support for comprehensive community-based prevention services. Such services focus on drug treatment and recovery and reducing transmission of viral hepatitis and HIV through hepatitis A and B vaccination, testing, linkage to care and treatment, and access to sterile syringes and injection equipment.
"Until we as a nation remove the barriers to hepatitis C testing and treatment, it will continue to cost us dearly -- both in terms of dollars and American lives," said Dr. Mermin. "Every death from hepatitis C is a reminder of a promise not yet realized for far too many."
For more information from CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, visit www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom.
[Note from TheBodyPRO: This article was originally published by CDC on Nov. 8, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]